Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Assisi: All of Life is a Pilgrimage

Having begun this week with the celebration of Saint Francis of Assisi, I was moved to read a relevant section in one of my old handwritten journals. It's hard to believe it was 25 years ago that Eileen and I spent three and a half weeks in Italy for our honeymoon in June and July 1996. That unforgettable trip was many things: the beginning of our married life; a great series of adventures we had together; a chance to make common memories in places where we had both previously lived (separately and at different times); an exploration of history, art, and architecture; a series of wonderful meals; many reunions with Italian friends from Rome to Liguria; and of course lots of wrong turns, hassles, inconveniences, exhaustion, and fun. But above all it was a pilgrimage

Indeed, Italy — if one really pays attention — is a powerful symbol of the truth that all of life is a pilgrimage, a journey that ultimately transcends the limits of this world but also encompasses and illuminates all that is good and lovely and meaningful in all the moments and facets of temporal life.

It's hard to believe that we have not been to Italy since that trip. Our three adult children have been there, and the others will probably go during their university studies. I hope that Eileen and I can return some day, to visit again these important and enduring places (and see our friends once again in their homes). In any case, these days — a quarter of a century ago — never feel "very far away" from us. In a way, they laid the foundations for our journey together as husband and wife, our common vocation as educators, our home, and our family life. They helped give concrete shape to our pilgrimage in this world during these last 25 years, and will continue to be vitally important to us for engaging the times to come.

In honor of Saint Francis, I am reproducing below a brief excerpt from my journals regarding our arrival in Assisi. As you will see, I was incurably brainy, even during our honeymoon.😜 Ah well, that's one of the things Eileen has always loved about me, even when — as is often the case — it is more a burden than a talent. She has always helped me to bear it.
"After a week and a half in Rome, we left early on this morning for a new destination in our pilgrimage — Assisi. As the train climbed into the Umbrian hills, we immediately sensed the change in atmosphere. We were leaving the chaos, the noise, and the contradictions (as well as the spiritual and historical vastness) of Rome, and entering into a place of quiet and simplicity of focus. 

"Rome is the second greatest place of pilgrimage in all the world (second only to Jerusalem and the Holy Land), but it is also many other things: tourist center; historical, archaeological, and artistic center; economic and political center; and now also — in these most recent years  — immigration center. The proportions of Rome are everywhere huge: supernatural grandeur, human grandeur, but also "splendid vices" and — today especially — ever enlarging tunnels of physical and personal misery. Assisi is something markedly different. Assisi is a place of pilgrimage ... and nothing else. 

"The first thing that struck me in the train station and that continued to strike me throughout the visit is that everyone visits Assisi as a pilgrim. This does not mean that everyone knows why they have come here. But the whole of Assisi is centered upon one thing, and everyone comes here on account of that one thing. That "one thing" is a man. One man who lived 800 years ago. One human being who fascinates everyone.

"Indeed, every saint generates fascination; it is of the nature of a saint to fascinate (because holiness is true and good and beautiful). But Francis fascinates like no one else. He remains a living icon of Christ and a living icon of the human vocation in its purest and most transparent form, which is simply to love, to love "without measure," to love "madly" — indeed, it is to love without measure because the Beloved is immeasurable, to love madly because the Beloved is good and beautiful beyond every limit of human calculation. 

"We had all of our baggage with us, so we stayed in a small hotel right across the street from the train station, at the foot of the hill where the medieval town rises up to the sky. The window of our room had a perfect view of Assisi. After checking in, we went immediately up the hill (in a bus) to the Basilica of San Francesco, where we attended the high Mass and then visited the crypt, which holds the tomb of Saint Francis surrounded by the tombs of his first and most beloved brothers. I was struck by the power and the palpability of the affection of this most extraordinary companionship of the 'first Franciscans.' 

"Above all, however, I was amazed by the pilgrims. They prayed at the tomb, kissed the ground in front of it, pressed their heads against the grating in order to draw closer, as though they could perhaps rest their heads in the bosom of Francis. Nowhere did I see mere curiosity. Hearts were exposed here, the unfathomable human desire was wrestling its way forward to the surface of those faces that crowded around Saint Francis in the tiny crypt."

~Sunday, July 7, 1996